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Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 1


by John Lye

Note: This essay was published in the Brock Review Volume 2 Number 1, 1993 pp. 90-
106, which publication holds the copyright. The article addresses contemporary theory in
its more post-structural mode, and were I to rewrite it today I would put more emphasis
on the cultural studies model, on the growth of gender studies, and on New Historicism,
than I do here. I believe however that what I have to say here is still relevant and
describes the fundamental paradigm shift which has altered the direction and mandate of
literary study.

July 2001

Studies in literature in universities in the last two decades have been

marked by the growing interest in and bitter division over a set of
related theoretical approaches known collectively as Literary Theory.
Many Departments have become divided between "theory people" and
opponents who see themselves as defending the traditional values
central to the culture against Theorys perceived anti-humanism.
Literary Theory is part of a wide-spread movement in the culture which
has affected a number of disciplines, occasioning similar disputes in
some, a movement which has explored and elucidated the complexities
of meaning, textuality and interpretation. Literary Theory is not a
single enterprise but a set of related concepts and practices most
importantly deconstruction, post-Althusserian ideological or 'political'
criticism, post-Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism, New Historicist or
'cultural' criticism, some reader-response criticism and much feminist
criticism. The aim of this essay is to define the issues that ground
these contemporary literary theories.

There have always been literary theories about how literature

works, what meaning is, what it is to be an author and so forth. The
central interpretive practices in force and in power in the academy
which are being challenged by Theory were themselves revolutionary,
theory-based practices which became the norm. The two main critical
practices in the mid portion of the century have been the formalist
tradition, or 'New Criticism', which sees a text as a relatively self-
enclosed meaning-production system which develops enormous
signifying power through its formal properties and through its conflicts,
ambiguities and complexities, and the Arnoldian humanist tradition
exemplified most clearly in the work of F. R. Leavis and his followers,
which concentrates evaluatively on the capacity of the author to
represent moral experience concretely and compellingly. Many readers
have in practice combined the values and methodologies of these
traditions, different as their theoretical bases are.
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 2

Contemporary theory: the issues at stake

Theories and interpretive practices change with time, reflecting

changing world-views and uses of literature, and each theoretical
perspective tends to find fault with the one before apparently a
normal evolutionary pattern, an orderly changing of the paradigm
guard, the child rebelling against the parent as a way [end page 90] of
proclaiming its identity. Literary Theory challenges this orderly
developmental premise, suggesting that this continual cultural change
reflects an inherent instability, fault lines in cultural imagination which
demonstrate the impossibility of any certain meaning which could have
any ultimate claim on us.

Contemporary Literary Theory is marked by a number of premises, of

which I will present nine, although not all of the theoretical approaches
share or agree on all of them.

1. Meaning is assumed, in Saussure's seminal contribution,

to be created by difference, not by "presence" (the
identification of the sign with the object of meaning). A word
means in that it differs from other words in the same meaning-
area, just as a phoneme is registered not by its sound but by its
difference from other sound segments. There is no meaning in
any stable or absolute sense, only chains of differences from
other meanings.

2. Words themselves are polysemic (they have multiple

meanings) and their meaning is over-determined (they have
more meaning potential than is exercised in any usage
instance). They thus possess potential excess meanings. As
well, rhetorical constructions enable sentences to mean more
than their grammar would allow irony is an example.
Language always means more than it may be taken to mean in
any one context. It must have this capacity of excess meaning
in order for it to be articulate, that is, jointed, capable of
movement, hence of relationship and development.

3. Language use is a much more complex, elusive

phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take
normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much
more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural
operations, of which operations we are not fully aware.

4. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or

timeless truth, that is central to culture, meaning and identity.
As Heidegger remarked, man does not speak language,
language speaks man. Humans 'are' their sign systems, they
are constituted through them, and those systems and their
meanings are contingent, patch-work, relational.
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 3

5. Consequently there is no foundational 'truth' or reality

no absolute, no eternals, no solid ground of truth beneath the
shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent
'truths' generated by human groups through their cultural
systems in response to their needs for power, survival and
esteem. Consequently, both values and personal identity are
cultural constructs, not stable entitles. As Kaja Silverman points
out even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as the
unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of
repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally

6. It follows that there is no stable central identity or

essence to individuals: an individual exists as a nexus of social
meanings and practices, psychic and ideological forces, and
uses of language and other signs and symbols. The [end page
91] individual is thus a 'de-centered' phenomenon, there is no
stable self, only subject-positions within a shifting cultural,
ideological, signifying field.

7. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life

masks, through various means such as omission, displacement,
difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the
world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in
fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of
ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes
our world, including our 'selves', for our use.

8. A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a

tissue, a woven thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a
tissue woven of former texts and language uses, echoes of
which it inherently retains (filiations or traces, these are
sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices,
and woven of the play ('play' as meaning-abundance and as
articulability) of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only
itself', nor can it be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a
process. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth,
complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only the
full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions
inevitably inherent in them, become apparent.

9. There is no "outside-of-the-text," in Derrida's phrase.

Culture and individuals are constructed through networks of
affiliated language, symbol and discourse usages; all of life is
textual, a tissue of signifying relationships. No text can be
isolated from the constant circulation of meaning in the
economy of the culture; every text connects to, and is
constituted through and of, other texts.

Contemporary Theory as part of the 'Interpretive Turn'

Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 4

Contemporary literary theory does not stand on its own; it is part of a

larger cultural movement which has revolutionized many fields of
study, which movement is often known as the 'interpretive turn'. The
'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two
centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is
shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these
categories as stable and transcendent. Nietzsche proposed that there
are no grounding truths, that history and experience are fragmented
and happenstance, driven by the will to power. Marx and Freud
theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by
forces of which we are aware only indirectly, if at all, but which we can
recover if we understand the processes of transformation through
which our experience passes. What is new in the interpretive turn is
that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced
into a particular sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine
moment in history, and that they have resulted in methodological
disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and the
humanities. [end page 92]

There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn: the idea
that an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed, and
that the receiver of a message is a component of the message; the
idea that information is only information insofar as it is contextualized;
the idea that individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual
worlds are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of
talking about and imagining the world; the idea that the world of
individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is constructed by and
through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols, through language
in particular; the related idea that all cultures are networks of
signifying practices; the idea that therefore all interpretation is
conditioned by cultural perspective and is mediated by symbols and
practice; and the idea that texts entail sub-texts, or the often
disguised or submerged origins and structuring forces of the

Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a preexisting truth or

meaning that is objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by
interpreters in the context of their conceptual world. Neither the
'message' nor the interpretation can be transparent or innocent as
each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and
personal forces. In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a
text, a set of discourses which structure the world of the culture and
control the culture's practices and meanings. Because of the way
discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through,
among and under them, at the same time reading oneself reading.

The 'dangers' of Literary Theory

It appears to many that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental value

of literature and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is
just another text, with no particular privilege aside from its persuasive
power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 5

are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and

not sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of
literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the
existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and
contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and
the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural
force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter,
then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of
meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the
forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative
constructs such as literature may in fact be merely culturally effective
ways of masking the exercise of power, the bad faith, the flaws and
inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately Theory
can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to
attack those transcendent human values on which humane learning is
based, and to attack the [end page 93] centre of humanism, the
existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is
capable of control over her meanings, intentions and acts.

As theory has become more central in English departments, literary

studies have in the view of many turned away from the study of
literature itself to the study of theory. And as attention moves to
literature as the cultural expression of lived life, and to the textuality
of all experience, the dividing line between 'literature' and more
popular entertainment is being challenged; such things as detective
fiction and romances are being treated to as serious and detailed a
study as are canonical works. The Canon itself, that collection of texts
considered worthy of study by those in control of the curriculum, is
under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as
essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works
are independent entities standing on their own intrinsic and
transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies and
contingencies of history.

It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental

assumptions, that it is often sceptical in its disposition, and that it can
look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly
playful. The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons
for its questioning of traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead
to interpretive practices that are ultimately productive of
understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just
life. In order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its
stands, it would be useful to examine and illustrate three main areas
of meaning in literature: context, ideology and discourse, and
language itself.

The issue of meaning: context and inter-text

The process of meaning in literature should, one thinks, be clear:

authors write books, with ideas about what they want to say; they say
it in ways that are powerful, moving, convincing; readers read the
books and, depending on their training and capacities and the author's
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 6

success, they get the message. And the message is, surely, the point.
It is at this juncture however that this simple communication model
runs into trouble. An author writes a text. But the author wrote the
text in at least four kinds of context (note the presence of the text),
not all of which contexts the author is or can be fully aware of. There
are, first, aesthetic contexts the contexts of art generally, of its
perceived role in culture, of the medium of the text, of the genre of the
text, of the particular aesthetic traditions the artist chooses and
inherits, of the period-style in which she writes. Second, there are the
cultural and economic conditions of the production and the reception of
texts how the 'world of art' articulates to the rest of the social
world, how the work is produced, how it is defined, how it is
distributed, who the audience is, how they pay, what it means to
consume art, how art is socially categorized. Third, there is the artist's
own personal [end page 94] history and the cultural interpretation of
that personal history and meaning for her as an individual and an
artist. Lastly and most essentially, there are the larger meanings and
methods of the culture and of various sub-cultural, class, ethnic,
regional and gender groups all of them culturally formed, and
marked (or created) by various expressions and distinctions of
attitude, thought, perception, and symbols. These include how the
world is viewed and talked about, the conception and distribution of
power, what is seen as essential and as valuable, what the grounds
and warrants of value are, how the relations among individuals and
groups are conceptualized.

These are the most basic considerations of the context of the

production of a literary work. Some of them are known to the author
explicitly, some are sensed implicitly, some are unrecognized and
virtually unknowable. Every context will alter, emend, deflect,
restructure the 'meaning'. This would be easier to handle interpretively
if the same constraints of context did not apply also to the reader.
Both author and reader are 'situated' aesthetically, culturally,
personally, economically, but usually differently situated. The reader
has the further context of the history and traditions of the
interpretation of texts. When we read Hamlet, we read it as a text that
has been interpreted before us and for us in certain ways, not simply
as the text that Shakespeare wrote or that his repertory company
performed, whatever that was experienced to be.

An essential, central and inevitable context of any text is the existence

of other texts. Any literary work, even the most meager, will
necessarily refer to and draw on works in its genre before it, on other
writing in the culture and its traditions, and on the discourse-
structures of the culture. This creation of meaning from previous and
cognate expressions of meaning is known in Literary Theory as
"intertextuality." Anything that is a text is inevitably part of the
circulation of discourse in the culture, what one might call the inter-
text: it can only mean because there are other texts to which it refers
and on which it then depends for its meaning. It follows that 'meaning'
is in fact dispersed throughout the inter-text, is not simply 'in' the text
itself. The field of the inter-text extends not just to the traditions and
usages of the genre, and to literature generally, but to intellectual
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 7

traditions, language and argument, to emotional experiences, to

cultural interpretations of experience, to central symbols, to all
expressions of meaning in the culture: it is a network of allusion and
reference. This is the ground of the question of the extent to which an
individual can author a text. Many of these intertextual meanings may
not be apparent to readers, who must be situated themselves in the
inter-text in order to participate in the meaning. All meanings of a text
depend on the meanings of the inter-text, and our interpretations of
texts depend on our contextualized perspective and the norms of what
Stanley Fish refers to as our "interpretive community," our socially-
determined interpretive understandings and methods. [end page 95]

The issue of meaning: discourse and ideology

The second general area of meaning is that of discourse and ideology.

'Discourse' is a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it
refers to the way in which meaning is formed, expressed and
controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has
particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing
experience, and rules for what can and what can not be said and for
how talk is controlled and organized. It is through discourse that we
constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how
we see the world in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing
and multiple ways in which power is distributed and exercised. As
language is the base symbol system through which culture is created
and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is,
that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach
meaning through language, and meaning through language is
controlled by the discursive structures of a culture. There is no
outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of
talking about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic

Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great

contributions of the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail
Bakhtin, is the concept of multivocality. The concept of multivocality
might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks like a unitary entity,
but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full
of cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts,
and so forth. Similarly the language of a culture is full of intersecting
language uses those of class, profession, activity, generation,
gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting
significances and inter-texts.

As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power

relations, it is inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the
term referred to the idea that our concepts about the structure of
society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are the
product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci
and Althusser, tend to see ideology more broadly as those social
practices and conceptualizations which lead us to experience reality in
a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined relation to
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 8

the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are

'hailed' by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an
implicit, necessary part of meaning, in how we configure the world.
But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing', the injustices and
omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some
person or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so
that the exercise of power looks normal and right and violations
appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for instance, why
women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional,
not as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so
too. Men did not think that [end page 96] they were oppressing
women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious matter of fact, as
was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad,
the illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed
that it is possible by examining any structure of communication to see
its ideological perspective through the breaks, the silences, the
contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit
assumptions about the nature of the world.


The concept of ideology is part of structuralist and, consequent to that,

poststructuralist thought. Structuralism was a broad movement which
attempted to locate the operative principles which ground activities
and behaviours; its importance to Literary Theory is substantial,
although Literary Theory has rejected a number of its premises. Two
central structural theories were Freud's psychoanalytic theory and
Marx's economic/political theories. What marks these theories as
structuralist is their locating of generative forces below or behind
phenomenal reality, forces which act according to general laws through
transformative processes. In structural theories, motive, or generative
force, is found not in a pre-text but in a sub-text; the surface is a
transformation, a re-coded articulation of motive forces and conditions,
and so the surface must be translated rather then simply read. From
the rise of the whole rich field of semiotics to the theorizing of the
history of science to the revolutionizing of anthropology to the creation
of family therapy, structuralism has been a central, pervasive force in
the century. The idea of decoding the depth from the manifestations of
the surface, that what appears is often masking or is a transformation
of what is, is a key tenant of Literary Theory.

Poststructuralism carries on with the idea of the surface as a

transformation of hidden forces, but rejects structuralism's sense that
there are timeless rules which govern transformations and which point
to some stable reality below and governing the flux what
poststructuralism refers to as an essentialist or totalizing view.
Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented,
diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some
consequences have been, first, poststructuralism's greater attention to
specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete
instances; second, a greater emphasis on the body, the actual
insertion of the human into the texture of time and history; third, a
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 9

greater attention to the specifies of cultural working, to the arenas of

discourse and cultural practice; lastly, a greater attention to the role of
language and textuality in our construction of reality and identity.
Literary Theory is a poststructural practice. [end page 97]

A demonstration reading: ideology

Perhaps we should take a moment to examine some of these concepts

in art at work, with the warning that Literary Theory represents a
broad range of practices and emphases, and no one kind of reading
can be fully exemplary. Take, however, just the first lines of
Shakespeare's Sonnet 129:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame.

This looks like a clear moral point: lust is bad stuff. There is, however,
more to 'read' in these lines. As there was no standardized spelling in
Shakespeare's time, the spelling of "waste" is an editorial decision. It
could have been spelled "waist;" the force of the pun is inevitably
present. A "waist of shame" is a female waist, particularly when "spirit"
is expended there, as "spirit" was a euphemism both for semen and for
(as "sprit") the penis. So we have here lust in action indeed, genital
intercourse. But notice the valuation of the sexes. The male is
associated with the spirit with the 'good', with non-material value;
the woman is associated with the lowest of material being, waste. He
is 'above' her in every sense. As in modern advertising, the male is
coded for action, the woman is coded as body parts. It is to the
woman, not to the man, that shame is attached; woman is the
waist/waste of shame. There is in the line as well a metaphysical
discrimination, as the world of 'spirit' is valued over the world of the
body; it is not to the spirit but to the body that waste and shame are
attached. There is an economic ideology here, as the sexual act is an
economic transaction "expense" and "waste" with the male
having the power of the purse, economic, moral, sexual power tied
together. This economic language not only again privileges men, but
places the imagination of the poem within the bourgeois mercantile
culture. Shakespeare's lines can be analyzed to reveal not, or not only,
a lucid and moving moral perspective, but an ideological construction
which privileges male over female and spirit over matter, which uses
moral terms in an oppressive manner, and which in the end shares and
shows bad faith in many ways. The very language of the line
undermines the certainty and centrality of the moral perspective the
poem is claiming.

This undermining is continued in the bland assumption of the second

line that action is naturally consequent upon lust, an assumption which
has been used against women for centuries, and in the third line's
linking sex and violence together as if that were natural. It is,
shockingly enough, to the devilment of the gap between lust and
release, "till action," that the word "blame" refers; while shame is
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 10

attached to the woman, blame is attached to the bad things men do in

the heat of needing to get it off. Further, the moral perspective within
the poem is placed in a neutral, remote way as if it were inevitable,
unassailable: while "blame" requires an agent, a blamer, it is spoken
of as if it were inherent ("full [end page 98] of blame"), and the tone is
authoritative. Finally, the poem uses language from various realms of
discourse moral, physical, social, economic and seams them
together in a seemingly benign and normal, but damaging way.

The issue of meaning: language

The third large general area to be addressed is that of language.

Contemporary theory rejects the commonplace belief that language
functions by establishing a one-on-one relationship between a word
and an object or state which exists independent of language. Among
the assumptions behind this rejected belief are that reality is objective
and is directly and unequivocally knowable; that words have a
transparent relation to that reality one can 'see through' the word to
the reality itself; and that that meaning is consequently fixed and
stable. Contemporary theory accepts none of this. 'Reality' is too
simple a formulation for the collection of acknowledgments of physical
entities and conditions, of concepts of all kinds, and of all the feelings,
attitudes, perceptions, rituals, routines and practices that compose our
habited world. Medieval medicine was based in large part on astrology,
and astrology was based on the known fact that the (not too distant)
planets each had a signature vibration which impressed the aether
between the planets and the earth, which in turn impressed the
malleable fabric of the mind of the newborn, and which thus created
the person's disposition through the combination of and the relation
between the characteristics of the dominant planets at the time of
birth. To what reality, do we think now, did the language of medieval
medicine refer? We could say that the medievals were 'wrong', but the
conceptions involved so structured their imagination of human nature
and motivation, so suffused their attitudes, were so integrated with
values which we still hold, that such a statement would be
meaningless. Language exists in the domain of human conception, and
is dependent not on 'reality' but on how we see relations, connections,
and behaviours. In turn how we see these things are, of course,
dependent on our language.

Since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the

century, language has been seen by many to signify through
difference: words mean in that, and as, they differ from other words,
which words in turn mean in that they differ from yet other words.
'Meaning' becomes a chain of differentiations which are necessarily at
the same time linkages, and so any meaning involves as a part of itself
a number of other meanings through opposition, through
association, through discrimination. As a word defines itself through
difference from words which define themselves through difference
from words, language becomes a kind of rich, multiplex sonar that
carries the cognitive, affective and allusive freight of meanings shaped
by and reflected off other meanings, full of dimensionally. Derrida's
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 11

famous coinage diffrence, which includes both [end page 99] differing
and deferring, catches something of the operation, although Derrida's
concept penetrates to the very structure of being, to the differing and
deferring without which space and time are impossible and which are
thus fundamental to 'being' itself.

Language has many 'levels' or currents of meaning, shifting,

interrelating, playing off one another, implicated (from L. plicare, to
fold) and pliant (from F. plier, to bend, ultimately from plicare). Some
currents carry us back as in cultural memory to the etymological roots
of the words, as just illustrated. Some currents carry us back to the
time and the way in which, as infants, we entered the symbolic order,
the world of signs and thus of authority, power and socially (Lacan),
and even before that to evocations of our infantile immediate, inchoate
experiences (Kristeva). Some currents tie us in to experiences and
symbols that involve and evoke our repressions, our fears, and our
narcissistic needs. Some currents tie us in to the various worlds of
"discourse," socially constituted ways of conceptualizing and talking
and feeling judicial, economic, domestic, theological, academic and
so forth (Foucault). Some currents tie us into key cultural symbols, to
ways we see and feel the world as constructed, to our imaginary world
of hope, trust, identity, to our projection of ourselves into the future
and into our environment. Many currents carry affective weight, as
words are learned in social contexts from people who are usually close
to us, and there is thus an intrinsic sociality in the very acquisition of
the meanings and hence to the meanings themselves (Volosinov).
Meaning in language is highly context-sensitive. Words are not little
referential packages, they are shapes of potential meaning which alter
in different meaning environments, which implicate many areas of
experience, which contain traces of those differences which define
them, and which are highly dependent on context, on tone, on

A further demonstration reading: language and meaning

In order to look at how language might be approached in

contemporary theory again with the caveat that there are many
approaches and understandings within the domain of theory let us
take the first sentence from this first quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

One might ask, does the word "admit" mean "confess" or "allow to
enter?" Is "impediment" a legal or a conceptual term here, or a term
from the world of physical manipulation, a stumbling block? An
impediment is something that gets in the way of pedes, the foot, and
while the word "impediment" as a moral or social hindrance is taken
from the marriage ceremony, that explanation does not [end page
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 12

100] consum exhaust the meaning potential "impediment" also

meant a physical defect or impairment, a speech defect, and baggage.
Its use must include these possibilities through the operations of
difference. Why, one might go on to wonder, are the worlds of morality
("admit") and of fault ("impediment") immediately entered into the
world of "true minds"? And is it chance that, on the levels of both
conceptualization and enunciation, the smooth rhythmic flow of the
first line is suddenly interrupted by two tough Latinate words? These
words not only need to be stumbled over and figured out but introduce
worlds of opposition on several levels: criminality vs. innocence, fault
vs. wholeness, social/legal vs. moral/philosophical. Hasn't the poem
just admitted a number of impediments while saying it wasn't going to
admit impediments?

The phrase itself "the marriage of true minds" implicitly admits an

impediment. This impediment is the body. The body is admitted but
denied by the word "impediment" with its root reference to stumbling
feet but its abstract usage, and the body is implied by "marriage". The
phrase "marriage of true minds" raises the whole question of the body
by being explicitly about minds, whereas marriage itself as an
institution is a union of bodies and property. The body is admitted by
"marriage" most strongly through the fact that marriage is a social act
(sanctified by the Church, the Body of Christ, and only legal when
witnessed by others, bodily presences), through the realm of the legal,
the control of bodies, and through the legitimation of marriage, as a
marriage which was not " consummated," an interesting concept in
itself, was considered not to be a marriage.

There is yet another impediment in the sentence. The word "true" in

reference to "minds" suggests of course straightness or levelness,
body values, but it suggests by exclusion the unstraightness of mind
that the "true" is structured against and includes by difference. If the
speaker has to say "true minds" then there are untrue minds, so we
have to ask what the 'mind' is here that is being married, what the
nature of 'mind' is. The word cannot refer to some abstract, non-
physical value or being if 'mind' can be unstraight, morally unsound,
not on the level, therefore fallen, therefore (as fallen) in the world of
action and conflict and thus of the body. But 'mind' is obviously
explicitly opposed to the body, and the body is an impediment. The
sentence's play of meaning forces us inexorably back to the centrality
of the body, and questions the status of 'mind'.

There is another impediment that the poem admits from the very
beginning: "Let me not ....." Who is to let or not let the speaker admit
impediments? (A "let" was, incidentally, a hindrance, an impediment).
There is someone who can stop him from not admitting impediments,
otherwise he would not have said "Let me not:" a world of power and
restriction peeks forth, qualifying the apparent freedom the line
claims. As well, "Let me not," with its implicit emotional appeal, takes
us back psychically to the world of restriction, prohibition, [end page
101] forbidding, and in its colloquial force and its imperative,
demanding tone to the two-year-old's universe, its evocation therefore
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 13

of narcissism, of the taboo, of the root conflict of social life and

personal identity; it thus enters us into a world of meaning which on
the surface sorts oddly with the social/legal language that follows.

There is in the sentence as a counter-current a narcissism, the juvenile

self-aggrandizement of a speaker who thinks he could in fact stop the
marriage of true minds. But if anyone can stop the marriage of true
minds, as obviously he believes that they can (or he can), then it is
probably because the marriage of true minds does depend on the
powers of property, the body, physical and social force, and so the line
really does not in fact claim the power or liberty of the spiritual nature
of humans, as an unsuspecting reading might assume, but claims
instead the power of the physical and judicial. This may well be what
the line really confesses or, to put it another way, the reality that the
ideological structure masks: that the social, judicial, physical elements
of our world do in fact have the force over a union of persons that the
line denies that they do, and perhaps that in point of fact a 'person' is
comprised of these physical, social, legislative elements, these worlds
of discourse, of the constitutive imaginary. The case could be made
that the idealism of the apparent meaning of the line, which idealism
depends on there being real, isolable, inviolate "minds," is what is
ultimately put in question; on the other hand, the 'obvious' meaning of
the line remains in force, creating a challenge, a contest of meaning,
an undecidablility.

Not only does this short sentence launch us on a strange journey of

oppositions and contradictions, but it enters us into whole arenas of
cultural discourse and concern, the long-standing philosophical debates
about the relation of and values of mind and body, the place of the
power of the judicial in the world of body and mind, the sociality of the
individual, the nature of marriage and what it entails, the physically of
marriage both sexually and legally and the relation of that physicality
to the moral world, issues of moral freedom, issues of what constitutes
the good. These differing but implicated worlds, with their differing
assumptions, language uses and emotional resonances importantly
including the poetic expressions of these debates become part of
the meaning of the line.

Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different

aspects of these considerations, give them different weight. A
deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the
sentence works against itself, proving for instance the dominance of
law and the body while apparently proclaiming the freedom of the
mind it might be claimed that what I have done is to "deconstruct"
the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with something
that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the
lowly foot in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and
might show how the meaning ultimately depends on that exclusion or
marginalized element. [end page 102] An ideological approach might
concentrate on the complex of linguistic and social meanings which
attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction of
an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 14

with, say, the development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self'
in the western capitalist regime. It might also want to look at the
conditions of production and consumption of the line who wrote it
for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and
class exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those
things shape and are subtly present in the line itself. This form of
poetry was written for the leisure class, the world which had power
over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or those
who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged
individuals in manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published. A
psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic
demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of
projection, denial and pre-symbolic conflicts that swirl through the
line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or loss of identity) and
displacement that the line suggests. A reader-response reading would
concentrate on how the line structures our responses, and on the
larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those
of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions.
A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard
to see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the
line tied in with those of other texts and with the cultural practices of
the time, and to thus articulate the sentence in its culturally embedded
implications, meanings and conflicts. It would be most interested in
the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the
social structures of the time, and in the power of the discourses
themselves (the areas of for instance personal demand, philosophy of
love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social
institutions) and how they work with and against each other.

What these approaches would not do is merely affirm that the lines
support the ideals of the freedom and independence of love and the
wonder of the human spirit, although most would grant the presence
and power of these meanings in the line. These approaches would not
seek closure, trying to resolve into a neat package the various conflicts
and centrifugal tendencies of the line (a "reader response" reading
would include the natural human demand for closure as part of its
reading and therefore as part of the way the line 'makes' its meaning).
Most of these readings would focus in some way on the disparities in
our imaginations and our practices that the line reveals, the
contingency of our lives, the hidden exercises of social power that the
line finally confesses. They might well think that the line means more,
humanly speaking, than the humanistic reading would suggest. [end
page 103]

Is Literary Theory bad for us, and will it go away?

There is a certain self-satisfied celebration among people

opposed to Literary Theory who see that the practice of
deconstruction, the most metaphysically-based and in
some ways the most oppositional and intricate of the
contemporary critical theories, is apparently on the
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 15

decline. It is unlikely, however, that its methodology and

its insights will be wholly left behind, or that the issues it
raised or faced will disappear. Deconstruction de-limited
linguistic performance and critical thought and has
afforded the most astute critique of our failure to question
the assumptions and the complexities of our uses of
language and discourses. Deconstruction has furthered the
work of existential and hermeneutic thought in attempting
to locate meaning in a world which has no permanent or
ultimate metaphysical realities to underwrite its
meaningfulness, and it has most refreshingly challenged
both the pieties of humanism and the rigidities of
structuralism. The other kinds of Literary Theory, enriched
by poststructural theory and deconstructive practice, are
still in force, coalescing most effectively at the moment in
the cultural analyses of New Historicism and in the work of
ideological criticism with both 'high' and popular culture in
penetrating to the motives and mystifications of cultural
meanings. Contemporary critical theories may or may not
be 'right,' given that there is a 'right,' but the issues that
they address are genuine and considerable, as is their
contribution to and place in contemporary thought, and the
practice gives rise to serious and at times telling
interpretations and revaluations.

Brock University St. Catharines, ON

A Guide to Further Reading

There are hundreds of books on Contemporary Theory. This guide

gives texts one might begin with of theorists mentioned in the essay,
introductions to contemporary theory , and major movements.

I Theorists mentioned

Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"

in Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic

Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press. See Volosinov

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.

[end page 104]

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in General Linguistics. New

York: The Philosophical Library.
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 16

Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, and 1992. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New
York: Routledge. Derrida is very difficult; see "Deconstruction" for
some introductions to his work.

Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class?. Boston: Harvard

University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York:

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. A Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Mol, New York:
Columbia University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton. A difficult

theorist and writer, Lacan might best be approached through
secondary sources such Madan Sarup's brief and lucid Jaques Lacan,
1992, Toronto: University of Toronto Press or, as an interesting
alternative, Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques
Lacan through Popular Culture, 1991, Boston: MIT Press.

Macherey, Pierre. 1978. A Theory of Literary Production. New York:

Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Silverman, Kaja. 1983. The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford: Oxford

University Press. Silverman gives a good introduction to
psychoanalysis and semiotics.

Volosinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New

York: Academic Press. Originally published in 1929 and said to have
been written in whole or part by Bakhtin, it contains one of the finest
and earliest critiques of de Saussure.

II Introductions to Contemporary Theory

The best remains Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction,

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983; very good and more
difficult is Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1980. A good brief introduction with
applications is Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice, London: Methuen,

III Major Movements

Deconstruction. Good introductions are Jonathan Culler, On

Deconstruction, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1982; Christopher
Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge,
1982; Vincent B. Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced
Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; and a
collection of emys by the "hermeneutical [end page 105] Mafia" (also
known as the Yale deconstructionists) Harold Bloom, Paul de Man,
Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page 17

Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction

and Criticism, New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Feminist Criticism. There are many kinds of feminist criticism. A good

introduction is Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and
Coppelia Kahn, New York: Routledge, 1985.

Ideological or Political Criticism. Francis Mulhern, Contemporary

Marxist Literary Criticism, Harrow, Essex: Longman, 1992.

New Historicism. A collection edited by Aran Veeser, The New

Historicism, New York: Routledge, 1989, is a good start.

Poststructuralism. Vincent B. Leitch, Cultural Criticism Literary Theory,

Poststructuralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Psychoanalytic Criticism. Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism:

Theory in Practice, London: Routledge, 1984, is a good introduction;
see also Silvemm.

Reader Response. Susan R. Suleinian and Inge Crossman have edited

a very good selection of writings in The Reader in the Text. Princeton,
NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1980. The most read book 14
Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response,
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. See Fish for a more
post-structural approach.

Structuralism. Good introductions are Terence Hawkes, Structuralism

and Semiotics, London: Metheun, 1977, and Jonathan Culler,
Structuralist Poetics, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Brock Review 1993